DOD Personnel Clearances:

Comprehensive Timeliness Reporting, Complete Clearance Documentation, and Quality Measures Are Needed to Further Improve the Clearance Process

GAO-09-400: Published: May 19, 2009. Publicly Released: May 19, 2009.

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The Department of Defense (DOD) personnel security clearance program has been on GAO's high-risk list since 2005, due to delays in the process and incomplete documentation. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) conducts most of DOD's clearance investigations, which DOD adjudicators use to make clearance decisions. The Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) chairs a Performance Accountability Council that is responsible for reforming the clearance process. Conducted under the authority of the Comptroller General, GAO's report addresses the (1) reporting on timeliness for DOD clearances, (2) documentation completeness for making initial top-secret clearance decisions for DOD personnel, and (3) reporting on the quality of the clearance process. To assess these issues, GAO analyzed data on most DOD clearances granted in fiscal year 2008, randomly sampled and analyzed 100 OPM investigative reports and DOD adjudicative files for clearances granted in July 2008, and analyzed 2006-09 executive branch annual clearance reports.

DOD and OPM met statutory timeliness requirements for personnel security clearances in fiscal year 2008, but the executive branch's 2009 required report to Congress did not reflect the full range of time to make all initial clearance decisions. Currently, 80 percent of initial clearance decisions are to be made within 120 days, on average, and by December 2009, a plan is to be implemented in which, to the extent practical, 90 percent of initial clearance decisions are made within 60 days, on average. Under both requirements, the executive branch can exclude the slowest percent, and then report on an average of the remaining clearances. The most recent report stated that the average time to complete the fastest 90 percent of initial clearances for military and DOD civilians in fiscal year 2008 was 124 days, on average. However, without taking averages or excluding the slowest clearances, GAO analyzed 100 percent of initial clearances granted in 2008 and found that 39 percent still took more than 120 days. The absence of comprehensive reporting limits full visibility over the timeliness of initial clearance decisions. With respect to initial top secret clearances adjudicated in July 2008, documentation was incomplete for most OPM investigative reports and some DOD adjudicative files. GAO independently estimated that 87 percent of about 3,500 investigative reports that adjudicators used to make clearance decisions were missing required documentation, and the documentation most often missing was employment verification. Although DOD leadership asserted that adjudicators follow a risk-managed approach, DOD has not issued formal guidance clarifying if and under what circumstances adjudicators can adjudicate incomplete investigative reports. For DOD adjudicative files, GAO estimated that 22 percent were missing required documentation of the rationale for granting clearances to applicants with security concerns, and the documentation most often missing was related to foreign influence. Neither OPM nor DOD measures the completeness of its investigative reports or adjudicative files. As a result, both are limited in their ability to explain the extent or the reasons why some documents are incomplete. Incomplete documentation may lead to increases in both the time needed to complete the clearance process and in overall process costs and may reduce the assurance that appropriate safeguards are in place to prevent DOD from granting clearances to untrustworthy individuals. The executive branch's annual reports to Congress on the personnel security clearance process have provided decision makers with limited data on quality. The 2009 report did not provide any data on quality but, unlike previous reports, identified quality metrics that the executive branch proposes to collect. GAO has stated that timeliness alone does not provide a complete picture of the clearance process and emphasized that attention to quality could increase reciprocity--accepting another federal entity's clearances. The executive branch, though not required to include information on quality in its annual reports, has latitude to report appropriate information and has missed opportunities to make the clearance process transparent to Congress.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve DOD's adjudication process, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence to issue guidance that clarifies when adjudicators may use incomplete investigative reports as the basis for granting clearances.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, we estimated that 87 percent of about 3,500 investigative reports that adjudicators used to make clearance decisions were missing required documentation. Although DOD leadership asserted that adjudicators followed a risk-managed approach, DOD had not issued formal guidance clarifying if and under what circumstances adjudicators could adjudicate incomplete investigative reports. We further reported that incomplete documentation may lead to increases in both the time needed to complete the clearance process and in overall process costs and may reduce the assurance that appropriate safeguards were in place to prevent DOD from granting clearances to untrustworthy individuals. In response to this recommendation, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence issued guidance on March 10, 2010 that clarifies when adjudicators may use incomplete investigative reports as the basis for granting clearances. The guidance, which the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence developed in coordination with the DOD Central Adjudication Facilities and issued as a result of GAO's recommendation, focuses on four factors that DOD adjudicators are to consider when deciding whether to adjudicate an investigation with missing or incomplete scope items or return it to the investigation provider: whether the investigator provided a sufficient explanation for the missing or incomplete scope item; the importance of the scope item; the number of leads or sources that make up the scope item, and whether the missing or incomplete scope item is relevant for resolving an adjudicative issue that is present in the case. With the issuance of this guidance, DOD will be able to assure that adjudicators are basing their decisions to accept and adjudicate from these investigative reports on a more uniform and consistent risk tolerance standard that is acceptable to DOD.

    Recommendation: To improve the completeness of future adjudication documentation, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence to measure the frequency with which adjudicative files meet the requirements of DOD regulation, so that the executive branch can identify the factors leading to incomplete files and include the results of such measurement in the annual IRTPA-required report to Congress on clearances.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, GAO estimated that 22 percent of 3,500 adjudicative files that adjudicators used to document their rationale for granting clearances were incomplete and the documentation most often missing was related to foreign influence. We reported that DOD did not measure the completeness of its adjudicative files and could not explain why this documentation was incomplete. We further reported that incomplete documentation may lead to increases in both the time needed to complete the clearance process and in overall process costs and may reduce the assurance that appropriate safeguards are in place to prevent DOD from granting clearances to untrustworthy individuals. To improve the completeness of future adjudication documentation, we recommend that the Secretary of Defense direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence to measure the frequency with which adjudicative files meet the requirements of DOD regulation. In November 2009, DOD issued a memorandum that established a tool to measure the frequency with which adjudicative files meet the requirements of DOD regulation. Specifically, the DOD memorandum stated that the DOD Personnel Security Research Center will use a tool called the Review of Adjudication Documentation Accuracy and Rationales or RADAR to gather specific information about adjudication processes at the adjudication facilities and assess the quality of adjudicative documentation. The RADAR will enable DOD to independently evaluate the quality of adjudicative decisions against the adjudicative standards. According to the memorandum, each of DOD adjudication facility will provide case samples to the DOD Personnel Security Research Center for analysis.

    Recommendation: To improve the completeness of future investigation documentation, the Director of OPM should direct the Associate Director of OPM's Federal Investigative Services Division to measure the frequency with which its investigative reports meet federal investigative standards, so that the executive branch can identify the factors leading to incomplete reports and include the results of such measurement in the annual IRTPA-required report to Congress on clearances.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In August 2013, OPM provided GAO with an update of several quality initiatives, including a Review Quality Tool that it states it is using to review investigations against investigative standards. However, OPM has not demonstrate how it has used the tool to measure the completeness and quality of its background investigative reports prepared by its federal and contractor personnel and sees the results of the tool.

    Recommendation: To provide more comprehensive information about personnel security clearance timeliness, which would aid the ongoing personnel security clearance reform efforts, the OMB Deputy Director for Management, in the capacity as the Chair of the Performance Accountability Council, should include appropriate statistics that describe the full range of the time required to complete all initial clearance applications in the executive branch's IRTPA-required annual reports.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, GAO reported that the absence of comprehensive reporting limited the full visibility over the timeliness of initial clearance decisions. At the time, 80 percent of initial clearance decisions were to be made within 120 days, on average, and by December 2009, a plan was to be implemented in which, to the extent practical, 90 percent of initial clearance decisions were to be made within 60 days, on average. We further reported that under both requirements, the executive branch could exclude the slowest percent and then report on an average time of the remaining clearances. At the time, the most recent report stated that the average time to complete the fastest 90 percent of initial clearances for military and DOD civilians in fiscal year 2008 was 124 days. However, without taking averages or excluding the slowest clearances, we analyzed 100 percent of initial clearances granted in 2008 and found that 39 percent still took more than 120 days. To provide more comprehensive information about personnel security clearance timeliness, we recommended that the Office of Management and Budget's Deputy Director for Management include appropriate statistics that describe the full range of the time required to complete all initial clearance applications in the executive branch's required annual reports to Congress on personnel security clearances. In February 2011, the 2010 annually required report included metrics on the time required to complete all initial clearances completed in FY 2010. Specifically, the report states that in the aggregate, the average timeliness of 100 percent of initial clearance cases is 79 days for FY 2010, versus 86 days for FY 2009, an improvement of 7 days.

    Recommendation: To provide more transparency in future versions of the IRTPA-required annual report to Congress on personnel security clearances, OMB's Deputy Director for Management, in the capacity as the Chair of the Performance Accountability Council, should include metrics on quality.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, GAO reported that the executive branch's annual reports to Congress on the personnel security clearance process provided decision makers with limited data on quality. The 2009 annual report did not provide any data on quality but, unlike previous reports, identified quality metrics that the executive branch proposes to collect. We further reported that information in annual reports on timeliness alone does not provide a complete picture of the clearance process and we emphasized that attention to quality could increase reciprocity accepting another federal entity's clearances. The executive branch, though not required to include information on quality in its annual reports, has latitude to report appropriate information and has missed opportunities to make the clearance process transparent to Congress. To provide more transparency in future versions of the annual report to Congress on personnel security clearances, we recommended that OMB's Deputy Director for Management include metrics on quality. However, none of the subsequent reports to Congress included any metrics on quality. In addition, the requirement for the annual report has now expired.

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